How Parental Projection Affects Children

What is Your Child Saying to You? Understanding Projection

Through projection, our inner conflicts can be reflected back at us through others. Let’s explore how parents’ experiences can get projected onto their children in both good and bad ways.


Understanding Projection

Psychological projection is a sort of defense mechanism that causes us to attribute characteristics we find unacceptable in ourselves to someone else. At the same time, there are also instances where a person might project their own positive qualities onto another person.

Projection can play a sneaky role in all of our relationships. It might cause us to dislike a coworker who has negative characteristics similar to our own. It might cause us to idealize a romantic partner, creating unchecked or even dangerous infatuation. From a parent’s point of view, projection can be especially harmful, because it can cause children to adopt beliefs and behaviors in an attempt to "live up" or "live down" to a projected identify.  

Take for instance this harsh example of a mother who grew up feeling as though she could never reach her goals or establish herself alongside peers. This mother might tell her daughter that life is unfair, and she shouldn't expect to amount to much.

This is nothing but an obvious projection, since it's the mother - and not the child - who feels like a failure. Unable to cope with her feelings, the mother unconsciously hands them off to her daughter. After hearing this sort of negative projection for years, the daughter may begin acting on it as if it accurately describes her.

This submission to a projected identity is especially tragic, because it effectively robs the child of her own identity and potential future. It might seem as if the child should be able to recognize that the mother's words are merely a reflection of her own life experiences. Unfortunately, children usually cannot make those assessments. Instead, they tend to incorporate these projections - at least in some way - into their own identities

Even when children are able to reject negative projections, the issue tends to cause conflict between them and their parents. In many instances, resentment takes root, and children may grow up with a strong desire to leave home and sever relationships with parents.


Can Projection Be a Positive Thing?

In some cases, projection can push children to see themselves in a positive light. A high-achieving parent might unknowingly project ambition and confidence onto a child, helping to cultivate a more positive self-image that ultimately leads to success. Just as often, however, this can manifest as undue pressure, which can lead the child to feel like a disappointment for not living up to the parent's expectations.


What You Can Do

Since they are usually unconscious impulses, it's not uncommon for parents to make projections that thrust their own unresolved issues onto their children. The most loving parents can project fears, disappointments, prejudices and expectations onto their kids without even knowing it. Even in the best of circumstances, this can have an effect on childhood development, causing kids to adopt identities that might not actually be their own.

If you suspect you may be projecting your own issues onto your child, take a step back and honestly evaluate your words and behavior. Think about your own childhood and try to see if you adopted your own parents' projections into your identity. Finally, if you do have unresolved issues, consider seeing a therapist to help you work through them. This can help you escape the cycle of projection and achieve a better overall state of well-being.


Foundations is here to help you and your family manage major life changes and day-to-day challenges. Contact our office for your free consultation!